Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The CRAM Index

Here's a quick-link index to my six-part feature on CRAM Books.

CRAM, Part 6: Angela Fanche's Me & Night

Angela Fanche's Me & Night was actually one of the earliest CRAM publications (2021) and it marks work from the beginning of Fanche's career. The raw, crude quality of the comic reflects that both artist and publisher would go through a great deal of refinement over the years, as Fanche's work has evolved while CRAM's production values would also dramatically improve. That said, this is an impressive debut for both, precisely because it so deftly embraces the raw, crude, and direct qualities of Fanche's drawing and confessional storytelling. 

A diary comic is a good exercise for a young cartoonist trying to establish a drawing practice, as the format forces them to draw without being too precious. It can have diminishing returns after a few months, especially if the artist starts to feel compelled to never miss a day. In Fanche's case, she abandons the daily format after about a month, and that's when the book really starts to get interesting. She talks about abandoning these autobio strips from time to time, but I'm curious to see if she chose not to include particular strips in this collection or simply stopped doing strips for long periods of time. She does allude to not doing them later on, but I don't know if this was the case across the board. 

Regardless, the entries stop being anecdotes about her daily life and start to cohere as a status report on her mental health, which veers from joy to despondency and back again. It's interesting that she ended the collection just a month or two into the quarantine due to the global pandemic, considering that so much of this book is about isolation and connection. The book starts just after Fanche has broken up with her live-in boyfriend, and much of the narrative revolves around her disinterest in getting into another relationship. Even when she depicts herself hooking up with a couple of people, she can't bear to stay overnight. What's more important to Fanche are her friends, her practice as an artist, and her cat. The real conflict in the book is with herself and what she eventually unravels is her depression. Talk therapy doesn't seem to help, but medication eventually helps her dull down her catastrophisizing, spiralling thoughts to something manageable. 

There is a lot of art but very little artifice in these comics. Memoir is usually constructed so as to deliberately paint a specific picture of the artist, whether it's upbeat, self-deprecating, or contemplative. Fanche's art and her thoughts seem to parallel each other: first line = best line and first thought = best thought. What makes the book so compelling is her rock-solid understanding of page and panel composition, even with a frequently scribbly and hasty line. Her use of blacks, her understanding of body language, and the way she arranges characters together in space show a refined, sophisticated conception of cartooning even while many of her characters are barely more than stick figures. That's all in support of Fanche being careful to try to draw interesting events in order to avoid the usual torpor that afflects diary comics, while at the same time spilling a life's worth of frustration, confusion, trauma, excitement, joy, and misery into such a succinct framework. 

Monday, June 17, 2024

SAW Work: Meg Lentz and Adam Rosenblatt

As a teacher and advisor at SAW (Seqential Artists Workshop), I've had the pleasure of mentoring a number of talent students. Two of them local to me in Durham are Meg Lentz and Adam Rosenblatt. I'll be reviewing their earliest minis in this column.

Lentz has taken on the alter-ego of Lenny Ditz as their primary character in their frequently surreal autobiographical comics. Lentz pulls no punches when discussing mental health, gender, social justice and other issues, but their primary method of storytelling is humor. Lenny Ditz #1 ("Lenny Ditz Meets Binky Brown") came as the result of an assignment where the students were asked to engage with a comic published prior to 1990. Lentz chose "Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary," the ur-memoir comic by Justin Green. It set the stage and immediately raised the stakes for all subsequent memoir comics. It was Graphic Medicine decades before that sub-genre had a name. The story follows young Green and his debilitating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that zeroed in on his believing that he emitted invisible rays of force from his hands and penis, and he was terrified that it would despoil the image of the Virgin Mary at his local church. 

Lentz opens their story late in college, where their previous perfectionism and compartmentalization that had served them so well for academic success came to a crashing halt, thanks in part to the global pandemic. Using an open-page layout, Lentz slides from sequence to sequence as they were no longer able to work effectively, but the mounting burdens made them feel even worse about their situation and caused their mental health to rapidly deteriorate. It got bad enough that Lentz completely dissociated from their environment, until they were surrounded by "trash, bugs, and mold--a manifestation of their mental state." The mold becomes a running visual motif, talking to Lentz and urging them to kill themselves. Engaging with Green's comic, they at first sense a kindred spirit, but then they are led to the idea of destroying themselves before cleaning house, literally and figuratively. This is no slapped-on happy ending, as the assignment itself was late, yet they perserved and finished it. It's an impressive first effort on a number of levels, but I especially like the sophistication of the visual motif of mold and the almost psychedelic patterns Lentz employed. 

Rosenblatt, an interdisciplinary scholar and professor at Duke, has actually done a couple of minis this year. The first, The Field Full Of Weeds, was included in his year-long collection, A Little Golden Promise Comics Magazine #1. The original story tracks with Rosenblatt's academic interests with regard to reclaiming neglected cemeteries as a form of social justice work, and it introduces his two primary "Disaster Birds" characters: Fairlawn and Nunyoa. The collection puts the stories in roughly chronological order, starting with "Sad Bird Band: Discography." The interesting thing about Rosenblatt's comics is how they organically develop their own character backstories that resonate against each other. This story was for a two-track assignment, where there are two competing narratives that don't directly relate to each other but whose juxtaposition creates a new whole. In this case, we meet Fairlawn and Nunyoa in high school, as they become best friends, as mediated by Nunyoa's obsession with the records of the Sad Bird Band. They are every emo/shoegaze/literary band you can imagine, and the story follows snippets from various years from either Nunyoa or Fairlawn over the phone along with a Pitchfork-style review of a new SBB album and an image of its cover. The story sees the characters go through ups and downs as friends until there's a tragic event that ties them into the band and their very existence. Beyond the clever formal qualities of the story, Rosenblatt's character design and understanding of gesture make the characters come alive. 

"Disaster Memorial" uses two-track in a different way: it narrates Fairlawn (an artist) talking about the experience of creating a memorial for gun violence in a book years after the fact while showing her design the memorial in the past. Rosenblatt avoids a standard grid and uses a floating open-page layout for much of the comic, providing atmosphere for the amorphous passage of time depicted in the story. Rosenblatt is also careful to center image over text, even in a story that is heavily text-based. For example, he makes sure that not only is Fairlawn depicted writing, walking, or drawing, she also interacts with her dog Flotsam. Giving her other things to play off of is key to keeping the reader's interest on the page. The final images are powerful, simple, and effective, as all text fades away with the exception of one crucial word ("Nunyoa"), and even that is deliberately made part of the art--both by the character as part of the memorial and by Rosenblatt in the story itself. 

Finally, "The Field Full Of Weeds" is slightly less focused on the characters and more on Rosenblatt's initial interest, but even here, he plays around with time as he flashes back and forth between Fairlawn trying to find Nunyoa's neglected grave and their past as friends (and their love of the Sad Bird Band) and Fairlawn having trouble listening to them after Nunyoa's death. There's a heartbreaking page where we see Nunyoa's grave, and she's saying (as Fairlawn perhaps imagines it?) that she wishes she could go back to the day depicted in the first flashback, where they are together. There's no easy resolution to the plot here, only a despairing admonition of not losing her twice (which is echoed across to the band). Rosenblatt seemingly has just started tapping a deep narrative well with these two characters, in a way that reminds me of Jaime Hernandez bringing up threads over time with Maggie and her friend Letty, who died in a car accident as a teen. 

There is one more story: "After Camp," and once again Rosenblatt uses a formal trick for a devastating emotional punch. The image is of young Rosenblatt standing with his grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust. It's clear that it's a drawing of a beloved photograph. The Rosenblatt figure engages in a monologue, only it's his present-day voice, as he talks about visiting the concentration camp his grandfather was held in. Words come pouring out as Rosenblatt tells a bit of his grandfather's story, and there's a profound sense of loss and grief that Rosenblatt plays around with formally (like noting the lettering, or creating a funny shape for a word balloon) before he ends on a sweet grace note. Like all of his stories, nothing is resolved, except an understanding of the need for connection and the pain of loss that makes that connection all the sweeter.

Monday, June 10, 2024

CRAM, Part 5: Allee Errico's Froggie World

Allee Errico is part of a wave of young cartoonists whose roots feel more connected to the underground alt-comics scene of the late 80s and early 90s than most comics that have been published in the last 20-25 years. One of her teachers was Lauren Weinstein, and you can see that in the way that Errico has embraced using a wavy, distorted, and scribbly style. Also like Weinstein (especially in her early work), there's an anything- goes quality in how she talks about her daily life. Her first collection from CRAM, Froggie World, is a well-curated collection of diary comics revolving around four topics: Love, Angel, Music, and Bike. In the introduction, Errico notes that she started doing diary comics to keep up a daily drawing practice (as many do), but soon found they have the power "to reveal the patterns of life, the universe, etc." Through her careful selection of strips, her merging of intuitive & spontaneous cartooning with intentional storytelling, and the unique color splash that Riso printing provides, Errico produced one of the best collections of diary strips I've ever read. 

There's an intentionality behind it that gives it power and momentum. On the first page, she describes finding a diary in the trash from a hundred years ago and how it inspired her to leave something similar. In Errico's case, it's a life sharply observed. While one can see Weinstein's influence at work here, the tone and page design also remind me a lot of Vanessa Davis' early work in Spaniel Rage. The open page layouts, the languid observations of a young woman lying on a bed in her tiny New York apartment, and the bright splashes of color all evoke the same sort of searching and idealistic artist. 

Right from the get-go in the "Love" section, Errico explores both desire and the ridiculousness of sex, as there's a panel where she digs around inside her vagina for a condom that slipped off inside her and emerged bloody: "I guess I got my period." Another strip contrasts the various tuna melts she got in the new year with sex talk, including one where she says to friends (in front of her lover) that she just ordered a strap-on dildo. In the second sex talk panel, he's fingering her while blathering on about My Chemical Romance. The timing and precision of these jokes are perfect, and the loving attention paid toward illustrating the sandwiches as well as the sex helps the jokes land. 

Later strips are in black & white and have a dense wordiness that is still effective, as Errico explores being a young adult who has rarely not been in a relationship. Throughout some of the strips, the quarantine and COVID lurk, though she rarely dwells on either. Indeed, while each section is roughly in chronological order, Errico only includes the most interesting strips that focus on love, sex, loneliness, and relationships. "Angel" is just two pages, featuring what is likely an image of a deceased pet and a strip about a man who can get pigeons to come to him. 

"Music" is the longest section of the book, because it's really about how experiencing music infiltrates all other aspects of her life. Once again, she starts in 2020, but this time she talks about how music makes her feel relative to the events of her life at the time. As she's struggling at a job, seeing different people, and navigating the city, she becomes obsessed with Nine Inch Nails and then later The Ramones in the way that music can feel like the most important thing in the world and listening to certain songs on repeat feels like it can fix you. Errico effectively juxtaposes events like getting fired with her roommate texting her that a headless, limbless torso outside of her apartment. 

She engages someone demanding her time on the subway in an amusing way right after she's fired and plays "Hurt" to salve the pain. She later starts dating a woman in a metal band and worries about not being metal enough. A lot of these comics are compelling because of the rough immediacy of her storytelling. While lacking some compositional clarity and sophistication in the strips where text dominates everything, she makes up for this with the immediacy of her mark-making. Her obvious skill as a draftsman and cartoonist gives her a lot of leeway in these strips, especially with regard to the more chiaroscuro aspects of her drawing. 

Above all else, as the "Bike" section suggests, Froggie World is about the feeling of being embodied, and how Errico becomes increasingly distanced from it over time. In "Bike," she becomes obsessed with how biking makes her body feel and the overall aggressiveness that biking in New York requires, to the point where she loses interest in sex and confronts that sense of disconnection by embracing the visceral experience of riding. The fact that she listens to Black Sabbath while doing this only makes sense--loud, powerful, and intense music with confrontational lyrics. There is no resolution or solution; her last thought is simply "My body is taking me where I want to go." Errico starts to explore more surreal, Gabrielle Bell-style storytelling in this section in an amusingly self-conscious way that nonetheless still packs a punch. The fact that this comic is labeled "Vol 1" implies that she plans to continue along these lines, and my only hope is that she follows the fancy of her imagination as far as it will take her. The self-assuredness of this debut is impressive, and even when things feel rough visually or in terms of composition, her voice is so strong and compelling that the reader wants to follow where she wants to go.